Virtual town hall fails to live up to potential, expert says

Obama's recent online forum did not demonstrate how social networking adds to public processes

On March 26, President Barack Obama held a virtual town hall, in which he answered questions submitted by the public through WhiteHouse.gov. A total of 92,937 people submitted 103,996 questions across 11 categories. In addition to submitting questions, people were invited to vote on questions submitted by others, with the questions receiving the most votes rising to the top of the list. Is this a model for e-democracy? We asked Kim Patrick Kobza, president and chief executive officer of Neighborhood America, which develops enterprise social software for business and government, to assess the initiative.

The fact of engagement is always a positive, and it is good to see the administration and government trying some new things. That being said, WhiteHouse.gov is not an example of a model for public engagement.

The good

The application of WhiteHouse.gov is useful in the sense that it at least provides a public perception that the questions being answered are from ordinary citizens, not  the media.  

Positives include:

  • The opportunity for a small group of citizens to be heard.
  • Well-defined participation guidelines.
  • The creation of clear expectations.
  • A good balance on attribution and identity.

All of these attributes are very well done.

The not so good

That being said, the application falls far short of what is possible. This is true for several reasons.

One way to think about it is in the context of network science. Think about citizens as a big network. That network can create value in many ways and for many purposes. Is identifying questions to ask the president compelling? Is that an appropriate purpose for a network — one capable of doing really big things? Would you hold a meeting to decide what questions a president or elected official should answer? And does the application build strong network value — even if the purpose is appropriate? Not really. Here is why:

  • The application is poorly structured. It doesn’t create the conditions that would enable creation of network value from the citizens participating.
  • Lack of compelling purpose. The citizen communication is limited to two methods: Suggesting ideas and voting on the merit of ideas already suggested. There is no story — no opportunity for citizen narrative that builds on the wisdom of each other. The whole point of questions is not to find the question that the whole group wants to ask and that is predictable — but to enable cognitive outliers to ask the unpredictable question, to promote ways of thinking about problems (and solutions) that are uncommon. The application promotes groupthink.
  • Fatal flaw: Where the application breaks down is the volume of solution possibilities — it is not credible. Think about it this way. Most choices in policy are essentially an “alternatives analysis” — a choice between different but well-defined solution possibilities. What is happening in WhiteHouse.gov is that the public is being asked to create and compare an almost infinite number of choices. Who could possibly read 53,808 questions, 53,808 alternatives?

Most people understand that it just isn’t credible to think that that is possible. So the application creates an illusion of meritocracy when in fact the statistical significance of any one person’s participation is negligible.

The value test

At the end of the day, let’s ask one question: Does the application accomplish anything truly remarkable? 

That is, do you come away from the experience of the application saying: That is a better result than we otherwise could have achieved using traditional means of participation? Was there anything in the questions promoted that was novel, unexpected and unique? Did we enable participation by citizens who otherwise would have been excluded? Would the application appeal to a broad range of citizens?

These things being said, no, I believe that this is not a good example of how social networking adds value to public processes. In fact, in some ways, these methods hurt more than help because they set the wrong citizen expectations. They are not our best effort, so to speak. So citizens will ultimately be discouraged because the application, as used, will not achieve results. When we don’t get results in anything in life, we lose trust.

How to improve

  • Using social tools for appropriate purposes (purposes where social collaboration in network can provide significant improvements in marginal value).
  • Define different but limited choices. Choices may be different but manageable. Enable choices between four and five solutions (i.e. do not create thousands of choices).
  • Do not overly segment topics. Oversegmentation in categories confuses most citizen users because they see multiple categorizations as adding complexity.

What is missing

  • A compelling purpose.
  • The ability to combine meritocracy features with a citizen’s ability to add narrative to solutions. We learn from stories, not from data. Citizens contribute to solutions by telling stories. Narratives contextualize the citizen inputs.
  • The ability for citizens to connect with agencies and each other. Networks are only valuable with member exchange.
  • Ultimately, an ability for management of structured feedback — a way to respond to citizens, to let them know that they have been heard and are valued. This might be done by integrating social collaboration and customer relationship management software.
  • Visual interest that builds social attention.
  • The ability to publish ideas into other social networks so as to build network value by tapping into multiple networks — share ideas that enable ideas to become viral, which builds citizen inclusion.  

The bottom line

I think that the dominant theme is that citizen networks are complex — especially in contributing to public policy outcomes. Success depends on much more than data management and mashing up technology features. What we showcase at a WhiteHouse.gov should be a shining example of our best efforts. It should be state of the art and based on our deepest knowledge and experience. It should not be, and does not have to be, based on experimentation. That is my first impression of the site. It can and should be much better.

Here's how to connect with Kobza:
http://www.linkedin.com/in/neighborhoodamerica
http://twitter.com/kpkfusion
http://www.inflectionbykim.com (my podcast series)

About the Author

Kim Patrick Kobza is president and chief executive officer of Neighborhood America, which develops enterprise social software for business and government.

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